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Rye, oh rye: the second part

Two new hybrid varieties, ergot research and some all-too willing volunteers

My last column on fall rye yielded a surprising amount of positive feedback from readers, so I’m plunging ahead with Part 2. Last month I discussed some agronomics and some niche marketing opportunities with fall rye. This issue I’m discussing new research on an old crop and what to do about those persistent rye volunteers.

Ancient crop, modern tech

I first heard rye described as “prehistoric” by Jamie Larsen, rye breeder at Agriculture and Agri-Food Lethbridge.

“Because rye is open pollinated and there hasn’t been much breeding work on it, it really is kind of prehistoric,” said Larsen. “You see all kinds of wacky stuff in it.” Unlike wheat and barley which are self-pollinating and have been bred for uniformity, rye from the same seed lot will have variation in plant height and seed colour. Other, less visible traits, like cold hardiness, threshability and falling numbers can be teased out through cross pollination and selection within populations developed from parental lines that are known to have these traits.

Canadian rye varieties already have world class cold tolerance (no surprise, really), so Larsen’s current research focuses on reducing straw height while improving falling numbers (the main quality specification for milling rye). Larsen is also addressing everyone’s main concern when it comes to rye: ergot. Larsen and colleague Kelly Turkington developed an ergot nursery at AAFC Lacombe where they put down the equivalent of 80 pounds of ergot bodies per acre and planted several lines of rye, with the hope of determining which varieties are more or less susceptible to ergot.

“Ultimately you want to see good infection, so the more you lay down the better,” said Larsen referring to the ergot. “If you see very low infection it’s hard to separate good lines from bad lines. If you get really high infections then you get some that are one per cent infected and some are 20 per cent.”

The Saskatchewan Winter Cereals Development Commission provides funding for Larsen’s research — this year he purchased a colour sorter with some of the funds. This machine will help him assess the percent of ergot per rye line. With ergot being an issue in wheat and barley recently, Larsen hopes that if his research on rye provides useful results, the project might be applied to other cereals.

Rye being on the extreme end of ergot susceptibility makes it a good candidate for research on ergot and the same principle applies with straw height and plant growth regulator (PGR) research. Brian Beres, research scientist, agronomy at AAFC Lethbridge included rye in his PGR trial this year because he wanted to make sure he had a crop in the trial that would have sufficient lodging susceptibility to demonstrate the effect of the PGR. The trial included two different rates and two different timing of application. Since this is the first year for the trial, results are still forthcoming, but it’s certainly a project I’m going to be following up on as lodging can be a big headache in rye.

Probably the biggest headline in fall rye right now, though, is the news that two new hybrid varieties have been registered in Canada. Brasetto and Guttino both come out of the German breeding company KWS and they are the first hybrid cereals to be registered in Canada.

A Regina based seed company, FP Genetics, won the rights to distribute Brasetto in Canada and they have several trials underway across the Prairies, comparing Brasetto with Hazlet, a high yielding conventional rye. According to Ron Weik, seed portfolio manager at FP Genetics, Brasetto has out-yielded the best open pollinated rye by about 25 per cent.

“It’s also shorter, so there isn’t as much straw,” said Weik. Shorter straw height also means less susceptibility to lodging. While rye tends to be grown on less productive land, Weik said this crop should be babied.

“Because this is a hybrid with the promise of yield, it needs to be grown on high productivity land. It needs to be fertilized and sprayed for disease as you would any cereal crop,” said Weik. Growers will pay considerably more to plant hybrid rye.

“Seed cost per acre is about $50,” said Weik. “I’ve talked to a number of people and thrown out that number and they didn’t hang up on me.” He likens the advent of hybrid cereal production to the initial years of hybrid canola seed.

“If there’s an econ advantage to growing the hybrid, then people will pay the price and if it doesn’t bring them value, they won’t do it.” In order to bring this profit to growers, FP Genetics partnered with Paterson Grain to develop an identity preserved program. Keith Bruch, Paterson’s vice president of operations, sees potential for sales into the milling and feed market given Brasetto’s high falling numbers and high fibre content. He believes the main economic advantage growers will see is through the yield gains, rather than a higher price compared to other rye varieties.

“There’s a big return on incremental yield gains,” said Bruch.

While the first cross hybrid side exhibits heterosis, or hybrid vigour, Weik pointed out that the production from harvested Brasetto will not make good seed.

“If you replant the seed of a hybrid you’ll notice a big yield decrease,” he said. While some farmers may balk at not being able to save seed, Weik sees this as “an opportunity to demonstrate to people the benefits of new technology that can be made available to cereals.”

The gift that keeps on giving

While there are innumerable wonderful things to be said about rye, it is not without its drawbacks. One being the fact that it volunteers so easily, sometimes for three or four years. Often after the first year the volunteer plants do not vernalize so there is no seed in the heads, but on our farm where we’re trying to produce other certified cereal crops, a crop can fail the inspection if there are too many volunteers visible. Our strategy has been to follow rye with Roundup Ready canola and then grow a year of commercial cereals, then maybe back to peas. Some growers follow rye with canola, then peas, but because we usually grow our rye on pea stubble it’s a bit of tight rotation to make it back to peas.

Recently I polled Twitter for suggestions on dealing with fall rye and one grower said he allowed all the volunteers to come up the following year, banded fertilizer on at early tillering and harvested a 55 bushel crop! Someone on Twitter reminded me that Clearfield wheat is also tool in the tool box. I’ve often thought the best solution would be to plant a cereal crop following rye and have it cut for silage or green feed (granted there’s a local feed market) and then go in with herbicide resistant canola, giving us an extra year and the added benefit of controlling both rye and weeds through cultural, rather than chemical means. Maybe the best tool for a farmer growing rye is a good sense of humour or a blind eye, because invariably, a few rye plants will escape even the best chemical and cultural controls and you’ll have to deal with your neighbours’ comments or your own ego.

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Sarah Weigum

Sarah Weigum grows pedigreed seed and writes at Three Hills, Alta.

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